Meet Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). He’s a lobbyist for Big Tobacco that speaks publicly FOR smoking and somehow wins supporters wherever he goes with his politcally incorrect yet charming demeanor. When Nick isn’t doing spin control for cancer patients on national talk shows or trying to convince Hollywood to make more movies with stars smoking on camera, he spends time with his son, Joey (Cameron Bright), a bright young man who is learning to appreciate how his father does what he does. In spite of mounting evidence of health risks due to smoking, personal attacks from unknown assailants, and even personal betrayals, none of it is enough to take down Nick Naylor. It’s not about the truth; it’s all about the spin.
The character of Nick Naylor is easy to hate. He’s charismatic, very likable, and seems trustworthy, everything that you’re not. Add in the fact that he represents and promotes a product that has probably directly or indirectly affected the health or life of someone you know or are related to, and it’s easy to see why no one would really want to BE Nick Naylor. But like a beautiful woman, an Italian sports car, or a briefcase stuffed with millions, Nick is both irresistible and bulletproof, qualities that actor Aaron Eckhart must fine within himself and that swell cleft in his chin.
What really sets Thank You for Smoking apart from every other film this award season is that, other than the intentionally off-putting title, this is really the story of a man reconciling what he does with himself and everyone around him, mostly his son, played dead-on by Cameron Bright. Like any real father, the opinion of his son matters very much to Nick, and the fact that his ex-wife was not able to endure Nick’s job, his son starts to understand what it is that Nick does and why he’s good at it. Couple that story with “a week in the life of Nick Naylor” enduring personal attacks, death threats, and a congressman who is supposed to be tough on tobacco, and you have the making of a real-life comedic drama that doesn’t preach so much as it encourages you to think for yourself lest you be bamboozled like the rest of the flock.
Eckhart doesn’t have to carry the film alone, however, and a pedigree cast of seasoned performers moves eveything along. J.K. Simmons as Nick’s boss is successfully supplanted from Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson without duplicating the performance. Maria Bello and David Koechner appear as other “spin doctors” representing alcohol and firearms, almost making Nick look like a saint while still making sure he doesn’t get to big a head from all his wins. Sam Elliot steals his scenes as “The Marlboro Man,” William H. Macy hilariously makes himself into a villain as an anti-tobacco senator, and Rob Lowe reprises his role from Wayne’ World as a super-producer willing to put anything in Hollywood up for a price.
The most amazing thing about the way Nick Naylor presents his arguments and still lives with himself in that gray, flexible moral ground between right and wrong really comes down to personal choice. At no time does Nick tell people to smoke (nor does anyone smoke throughout the entire film), but he does continuously tell people to think for themselves. Like a warning on a pack of cigarettes that no one disputes are potentially harmful, someone who is unwilling to think for themselves and make their own decision is pretty much doomed to start with. Remember, ignorance is when you don’t know something, but stupidity is having the knowledge and choosing not to use it. Preach on, Nick Naylor, preach on.
(a four skull recommendation out of four)